Yeltsin, on the Stump, Shifts Right : A move that could be more than just tactical should concern Washington

Boris Yeltsin will wait until next month before saying whether he will seek reelection as Russia’s president but-- his single-digit popularity ratings notwithstanding--there’s little doubt he’s already campaigning for the job.

After a long recuperation from what is still officially described as a mild heart attack, Yeltsin is back in view, erupting over the military’s humiliating failure to bring the 13-month-old revolt in Chechnya to an end and, with hardly a hint of thanks for moderate Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev’s five years of loyal service, replacing him with Yevgeny M. Primakov, late of the Soviet-era KGB and most recently head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. At a time of growing nationalism and longing for Russia’s erstwhile great power status, Yeltsin is clearly moving to the right, where--if last month’s Duma elections are a portent--many of the votes in June’s scheduled presidential election are likely to be.

The parliamentary voting showed minimal support for Yeltsin’s policies, with only about 10% of the total going to the main government party. Paradoxically, though, the voting might have improved Yeltsin’s reelection chances. The biggest party in the Duma, Russia’s parliament, which convenes Tuesday, will be Gennady A. Zyuganov’s backward-looking communists. In second position is the extreme right Liberal Democratic Party of the mercurial Vladimir Zhirinovsky, now modestly offering himself as a presidential candidate who is a “patriot, a legal expert and attractive to women.” Alexander I. Lebed, an admired if not overly bright former general, proved unable to draw much support for his faction, and may quickly fade as a presidential contender. The June race thus could come down to a contest between a couple of outer-edge opponents of reform, one of them probably around the bend, and Yeltsin, a known if not wildly popular presence.

Even before sacking him, Yeltsin had joined in the nationalists’ complaints that Kozyrev was too conciliatory toward the West. Much of that criticism stems from hurt feelings over Russia’s sharply reduced ability to influence world affairs. Primakov, the new minister, who has spoken of Russia serving as a “counterweight” to American international influence, is unlikely to be accused of an insufficiently pro-Russian bias. Some see his appointment as chiefly a matter of expedient domestic politics. But Russian nationalism, including hegemonic ambitions over great parts of the former Soviet Union, is more prudently viewed as a constant rather than a seasonal matter. Yeltsin’s shift to the right could well be more than just tactical. Whoever wins the presidency in June, Washington is likely to find itself dealing with a Russia whose external policies are less cooperative and possibly far more assertive.